Gone-Away Lake AND Return to Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright with illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush, 256 pp, RL 4

Before I begin my review, I need to thank long-time reader of my blog, Heather aka Proud Mama for mentioning Gone Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright in a comment on my article How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers. I had heard of Enright and her award winning books before, but Heather's mention of them (and the great new covers by Mary Grand Pré) inspired me to buy them and read them this summer and they now rank among my favorites. Enright's book won the Newbery Honor in 1958 and, while there are a few dated aspects to the book, really just the slangy dialogue that the two main characters use with each other and a continual reference to the love women have for curtains, Gone Away Lake is so completely charming and utterly engrossing that it seems timeless. But, what I love most about this book is the way that all of the characters completely enjoy themselves, no matter what they are doing. I have no doubt that the marvelous Jeanne Birdsall was inspired by Enright, among others, while writing her modern classic, The Penderwicks.

The book begins with eleven-year-old Portia Blake and her six-year-old brother Foster convincing their parents that they can make the annual train ride to spend the summer with their cousin Julian all by themselves. Happy to be riding the train alone with her brother, Portia lets him have just what he wants  for his lunch. "First he had a slice of apple pie, and then a slice of blueberry, and for dessert he had another slice of apple but with a lump of vanilla ice cream on top," while she has her usual train lunch, a club sandwich. From the start, Enright sets a tone of excitement, adventure and enjoyment. Gone Away Lake has to be the most magical book that is not a work of fantasy I have ever read. Enright creates an enchanted world for her characters to explore with treasure to uncover, over and over, be it a rare butterfly, an abandoned house, or an attic full of trunks. To this she adds new and exciting people, places and things that enrich their lives and lead to even more discoveries.

Enright also packs her book and her characters full of fascinating details. As Portia tells her friend Jody, Julian has "about a hundred thousand freckles on his face, all sizes, and the same color as his hair. He says it's the influence of the carrot on his appearance; he says that when he was a little kid, carrots were the only vegetable he'd eat, and he ate them every day for every meal except breakfast. So he turned orange." Julian also knows everything. He is good at sports but his passion is Nature, and his room is filled with the specimens to prove it. Portia, a very adventurous sort herself, is Julian's partner as they explore the land around the new home that Julian's family has moved into. When they get lost one day, on the run from mosquitoes the "size of helicopters" they climb up a "little hulk" and, gazing over the tops of a sea of reeds, see "a row of wrecked old houses." The surprise of this unexpected sight is followed by the shock of a radio advertisement loudly proclaiming, "Why suffer any longer from acid indigestion? Go to your local drugstore, now, today, and ask for a box of Pepso-Tabs, the wonder mint, only forty-nine cents the box." Of course they need to investigate further.

Julian and Portia head towards the houses where they meet Mrs  Lionel Alexis Cheever and her brother Pindar Payton. It seems that, some fifty ago when they were children, Tarrigo Lake was a summer resort for wealthy New Yorkers. The construction of a nearby dam dried up the lake and the residents never returned - not even to claim their belongings. Ready to retire from the world, the elderly Pindar and Minnehaha (Mrs Cheever's first name) decide to return to the lake, now called Gone-Away Lake, and live in hermitude, as Minnehaha calls it. The ages of Pindar and Minnehaha are never mentioned, but they had an uncle who died in the Civil War and dates from the late 1800s can be found on many things in their homes. On their first visit, Mrs Cheever serves the children homemade cherry-mead in fancy little glasses, each "stamped with silver letters that said: Chicago World's Fair, 1893" and Pindar enjoys reading the newspapers from the same time period that have been left in the house. In fact, he makes a point of reading the paper from the corresponding day and month, but not year. The brother and sister have each taken over one of the less dilapidated homes and furnished them with the contents of the "Big House," their abandoned family home. In fact, they even wear all of the outdated, antique clothes left in the houses, making their appearance and existence even more remarkable upon first sight. What I love best about Pindar and Minnehaha (she hates to be called "Minnie," which Pindar calls her all the time, but does not mind being called "Min") is their utter graciousness. They take such joy in the visits from Julian and Portia and treat them like capable, competent, intelligent beings, sharing stories and discoveries with them, baking triple-layer chocolate cakes in honor of their visits and generously sharing the resources and artifacts they have accumulated while living at Gone-Away Lake. The thing I love second most about Pin and Min is their ingenuity and ability to live off the land. They live without electricity and Pindar drives an old Franklin into the town of Pork Ferry once a month for supplies. Minnehaha has a "bog garden" where she has uprooted and replanted the various specimen she has found at the lake, including meat eating plants and orchids. She also dries and powders every possible herb and root she finds and seems to spend most of the summer making jam. The book is taken up with Uncle Pin and Aunt Min, as the children come to call them, sharing stories of their childhoods at the lake, alternating with Julian and Portia's adventures as they make a clubhouse in the attic of one of the abandoned houses that Pindar selects for them, try to keep the lake a secret from the adults and Foster and avoid the Gulper, a sinkhole in the swamp that Uncle Pin swears moves from time to time.

Enright is also a superb writer and my book is full of sticky notes marking instances of this. When the children enter Minnehaha's home for the first time, Enright describes her decorating style as dense, with a "large herd of furniture graz[ing] on a red carpet." When Julian and Portia apply a remedy that Minnehaha makes to repel mosquitoes, Enright writes, "the decoction, they soon discovered, had a very assertive, difficult smell. But, as Mr Payton had said, it did the trick, and after a while one's nose became resigned." Perhaps this writing is just an example of the formality of the time, but I love the direct, eloquent way Enright has with words. She also excels at describing her characters and giving them depth. Of Portia she writes, "Endings never satisfied her. She wanted to go beyond them. In fairy tales when the prince and the princess 'lived happily ever after,' she was the one who wished to know how many children they had had, what they named them, and whether the old wicth had ever put in another appearance." Portia is also adept at naming things. She named Julian's cat Thistle and is called upon to help name Katy the dog's five puppies, giving one the name Gulliver because he is always wandering off. She names the other pups Prune (the lone female) Othello, Tarquin and Tarrigo.

Besides having a way with description, Enright also has a magnificent way with incorporating philosophical ideas into a book for children. When Portia is enjoying the summer sun during a rare day spent at Julian's home and not Gone-Away Lake, she says to Aunt Hilda that she would like to hold on to time, "the weather, partly, but mostly time time. June like this, and everything just starting to be. Summer starting to be. Everything just exactly right." Aunt Hilda tells her that people would toughen to it, get used to it because that's what people do, saying, "It's just because it doesn't and can't last that a day like this is so wonderful," Portia responds thoughtfully, "Good things need comparers, I suppose, of how would we know how good they are?" This idea occurs again later in the novel, adding to it's brilliance. Not only are these characters having a fabulous time, but the are even stopping to notice it and value it in ways that we, some sixty years later, often forget to. Yet another reason to read these amazing books to your children.


Gone Away Lake ends with the Portia and Foster's parents coming to Creston, visiting Gone-Away Lake and deciding to buy Villa Caprice and turn it into their summer home. Villa Caprice was the home of Mrs Brace-Gideon, the imposing, extremely wealthy, matron of the lake who had her grand manor set back from the rest of the homes. She also had it locked up completely, inside and out, at the end of each summer which resulted in it being the best preserved home on the lake. When she perished in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 with no living heirs, ownership of her home reverted to the state.  Return to Gone-Away Lake is taken up, mostly, with exploring and restoring Villa Caprice over the course of the next summer and, while there isn't the initial excitement of discovery that fueled Gone Away Lake, Uncle Pin and Aunt Min still have a few more fantastic stories to share about childhood summers on the lake, including one about Mrs Brace-Gideon confronting a burglar trying to crack her safe one dark night. This story leads Julian on a hunt throughout the house to find the safe, especially after he discovers the combination to the safe hidden in a suit of armor - Mrs Brace-Gideon's over-the-top decorating taste, as well as personal style, is vey entertaining. By the end of the book and the summer, Mr Blake has decided to quit his job in Albany and work with Uncle Jake at his newspaper while also writing his novel on the side and the children are overjoyed. This career change, or at least the many improvements on Villa Caprice, which gets a very nice new name at the end of the book, are, in part funded through the many antiques, from furniture to jewlery, the Blakes find hidden throughout the house.

The pace of Return to Gone-Away Lake is a bit slower, the discoveries a bit less dramatic, but still absolutely wonderful to spend more time with Pindar and Minnehaha and the magic of Gone-Away Lake. As an adult, I have to admit to feeling a bit wistful (and jealous) of the adults in the story. Uncle Jake runs a newspaper, Aunt Hilda bakes and makes incredible dinners. The Blakes vacation in Europe while their kids spend the summer with their cousin. The kids can roam free, exploring the countryside safely, talking to strangers, making forts and clubhouses. And, best of all, Mr Blake can leave his job in the city to write a novel!! Ah, those were the days...

SOURCE: Purchased

Elizabeth Enright is also the author of this wonderful quartet of books:

And the Newbery winner, Thimble Summer, which sounds like a great book but is REALLY in need of an updated cover...

Which librarian Travis Jonker has done, and is doing in chronological order, for all of the Newbery winners! For a look at the Newbery winners covered thus far, click here.

Finally, I just had to share this portrait of the husband and wife team who illustrated Gone Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away Lake, Joe and Beth Krush. They also provided the cover and interior art for The Borrowers by Mary Norton, as well as other books by her. While I like the new covers by Mary Grand-Pre, of Harry Potter fame, I think that the Krush's illustrations capture the charm of the books and the time. Above is a portrait painted of the two from the 1980s. Below is a bit more of their work.


Catherine said...

Gone-Away Lake has to be among my top favorite middle-grade novels of all time. Just the idea of coming across an abandoned clutch of summer houses sets my heart aflutter. My sisters and I devoured all of Enright's books--we especially liked The Saturdays. Glad to see they're still a hit.

Tanya said...

I would have given ANYTHING to have known about and read these books as a kid - they have to be the most magical books without magic in them EVER! I'm jealous of you and your sister - but happy to know all her books are great. I'll add The Saturdays to my pile!

Charlotte said...

I love these books! And the Melendy quartet too.

I was lucky enough to have had them as a child, but still re-read them lots as a grown-up!

Tanya said...

Lucky! Do you think kids still read them?